Mexican Fare In New York: What’s Cooking?
An agave farmer throws piña (heart of the agave) into a fire pit as the first step in the Mezcal distillation process
Whether it was a late night Taco Bell drive-through in highschool or Cuervo Gold shots freshman year of college, chances are that if you grew up on the East Coast your introduction to what you thought was “Mexican” food and drink was mired in a haze of youthful dissipation and willfull disinterest for authenticity.
Fast-forward fifteen years: you now live in Brooklyn and can’t get enough of the local taqueria. You go, tell your friends, then go again. The budding desire to know the stories behind what we consume has also changed the playing field. You are savvy enough to see that sour cream and burritos have no place in Mexican cuisine, and that a tequila – Patrón – started by an American shampoo mogul (Paul Mitchell) and rarely consumed south of the border probably isn’t the most authentic or delicious on the market.
The growing demand for real, accessible Mexican fare in New York has coincided nicely with a resurgence in Mexican restaurants that speak directly to the various codes which define the craft movement—a drive for authenticity predicated on local production, passion for creation, a compelling story and the experience itself.
Restaurants like Hecho en Dumbo (“Made in Dumbo”) speak to the importance of forging roots in the community. Its new sister restaurant, Sembrado (“sown field”), a taqueria and mezcaleria in the East Village, builds off this symbiotic connection between the consumer, the land, ingredients and location. For instance, it sources pork from the Berkshires and focuses on artisanal agave distilleries producing Mezcals, rather than giant, industrial blue agave tequilas.
The rising popularity of authentic Mexican food is also reducing the reliance on Tex-Mex favorites that Americans typically expect when they walk into a restaurant. Sembrado General Manager, Oscar Bernal, notes, “We can be flexible when it comes to popular dishes like guacamole – which isn’t pervasive in Mexico – but there is also an education component. It’s my job to explain when guests walk in why we don’t automatically bring chips to the table. It is not part of the experience.”
If popular new joints like Hecho and Sembrado, as well as Mesa Coyoacan in Williamsburg and Casa Mezcal in the Lower East Side, have offerings that resonate strongly with the codes of craft favoring the little guy, they also shy away from that ubiquitous thirst for nostalgia. “For us it’s not about the past or simulations of Mexico done for the American consumer,” says Bernal. “All of these places are based on restaurants in Mexico.” The entire backbar at Casa Mezcal, for instance, is a replica of the popular “Central” in Oaxaca.
The growth of authentic Mexican restaurants in New York City is also tied to immigration. The chefs and managers are all friends and share a passion for bringing the flavors and influences from their home towns to the city.
One of the more interesting outcomes resulting from flows of people, culture and ideas is that the diffusion of trends knows no fixed direction. Americanisms interact with what’s hot in Mexico City and feed off of one another. Tecate cans invariably come with lime, partly due to the influence from California.
Mezcal, on the other hand, is trending from the opposite direction – coming from southern Mexico up to the U.S. Produced in small batches in Oaxaca, Mezcal has become the agave of choice among the in-crowd in Mexico City. The rich diversity of agave plants, the centuries-old distillation methods and small-batch production process have all rendered a much more complex drink than most tequilas, which only come from one of the 200 varieties of the agave plant and are usually produced on a much larger scale.
As disillusioned Americans continue to seek out culinary truths, our neighbor to the south offers a wealth of flavors still to be discovered. Pull up a chair, this is going to take awhile.
Photo courtesy of Flickr